01/09/2014 3:51PM

Spotlight stays on Pincay family

Benoit & Associates
Laffit Pincay III interviews his father, Laffit Pincay Jr., every year on his dad’s birthday, Dec. 29, on HRTV.

Laffit Pincay III, 22 at the time and a long way from home, did not exactly sugarcoat his take on the tough neighborhood where he was working in his first professional television job with a New York news station.

“I was a little worried about him,” said his father, Laffit Pincay Jr. “It sounded dangerous.”

The elder Pincay delivered the line straight up and free of the obvious irony. For Laffit Pincay Jr. to describe any endeavor as dangerous would seem to require a very high bar. For 39 years as a professional jockey he risked life and limb with every stride, head down and driving more than 48,000 mounts, retiring only when he was given no choice after the final injury in a career of many.

At the time, the younger Pincay was just finding his way into a world every bit as competitive, if not quite as life threatening. But when you are young and you’ve got any ambition at all, you damn the torpedoes and go where opportunities arise. Laffit the son was 22 when he headed east from the comfort of his native California to pursue a broadcasting career. Laffit the father was just 19 when he left his home in Panama to ride in the United States under contract to the noted owner Fred Hooper.

It worked out okay. Laffit Allesandro Pincay Jr. went on to win 9,530 races, the Kentucky Derby, three Belmonts, seven Breeders’ Cup events, and seven national championships. Retired since 2003, he has been a member of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame since 1975 and celebrated his 67th birthday on Dec. 29.

Laffit Alexander Pincay III, 38, survived his stint in the Bronx to join the Santa Anita-based HRTV racing network, founded in 2002. (Full disclosure: This writer has a family member employed at HRTV.) In addition to his HRTV role, the younger Pincay also has become a part of the NBC network and NBC Sports broadcast teams covering the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup.

“The first year I was with NBC, we went with ‘Laffit Pincay’ because ‘Laffit Pincay the Third’ sounded a little aristocratic,” he said. “Only then there were people who couldn’t put two and two together. They thought I was the jockey. NBC’s producers are so good they got rid of his accent! So we went back to the roman numerals.”

Laffit the father got a laugh out of this. Back in Panama, he spent only a couple of years working in the shadow of his successful father, also a jockey, before seeking fame and fortune in the States. For Laffit III, his famous father has been a presence in his professional life almost from Day 1, when he found himself interviewing Dad on camera for HRTV after winning a major race.

“I wanted to be an athlete,” Laffit III said as he lounged on the family room couch of his father’s Arcadia home, just up the street from Santa Anita. “But it didn’t work out.”

Pincay Jr. sat nearby, dividing his attention with his frisky Chihuahuas, Lola and Ginger.

“Sometimes after work he wanted to play basketball,” Pincay Jr. said. “I was so tired I felt like I was dying. But he wanted to beat me so bad, and I didn’t want to let him beat me. And boy, he had a good arm. He could throw the football a long way. But I didn’t want him to be a football player. Too dangerous. So he became a pitcher.”

Laffit III, a southpaw, played for St. Francis High School in La Canada, not far their Glendale home.

“I did pretty good until I blew my arm out as a sophomore,” he said. “They pitched me three times in a week, including a tournament on Saturday and Sunday in Santa Barbara. The following week I had a pain in my elbow I’d never felt before.”

“You would have been too small anyway,” his father said.

“No, not too much call for a 5-foot, 7-inch lefty in the majors,” the son replied. “I was never going to be a rider – too big for that, too small to do anything else. It’s a long, sad story.”

They both laughed.

“Television seemed to be the best way to stay close to sports,” Laffit III went on. “I worked on a public access show produced by a friend of mine, called ‘Inside L.A.’ Nobody remembers it, or even saw it, which is probably a good thing. It was the first time I ever did anything on camera.”

The next time was with News 12 Bronx, one of New York’s energetic local cable networks.

“We were there 12 hours a day,” Laffit III said. “James Rosen, now with Fox News, was there. So was Natalie Morales, co-host on ‘The Today Show,’ and Tai Hernandez, who went on to ABC. You had to haul your own camera around, but we got to cover the Yankees a little bit, go to Madison Square Garden, and cover the small public and private high school meets. I mean, basketball alone in the South Bronx is unbelievable, the depth of talent that’s there.”

So the younger Pincay became a local star?

“No,” he replied. “I was awful. But just because I was bad at it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I had the idea I was so young that I could improve enough to maybe make a career out of it.”

His father knew exactly what he meant, as the memory of his first season at Santa Anita returned. It was the winter of 1966-67.

“It was tough,” Pincay Jr. “New horses would come in, jockeys from New York. The first couple times I rode at Santa Anita I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this.’ They rode so hard, so fast, right from the start.

“Then that first year, I won the Strub Stakes with Drin,” he went on. “It was a big purse, a big deal. That day I came right back to win the last race in a photo with Shoemaker. When the reporters asked me about winning the Strub I said that was nice, but what I really was happy about was beating Bill Shoemaker a nose.”

Some 32 years later, in late 1999, Pincay Jr. was still hard at work, bearing down on Shoemaker’s all-time record of 8,833 winners. The scene at Hollywood Park was tense with anticipation, a drip torture for those who were hanging on Pincay’s every ride. Laffit III took a weekend off work and jetted west, figuring his dad would break the record with efficient ease and he could hop right back to New York. But it didn’t work that way. Pincay Jr. finally set the mark on Dec. 10.

“He was milking it,” Laffit III said with a laugh. “But it could have taken two months and I was going to stay. There were ramifications, though. When I got back to work I got terminated.”

His father winced. He knew the feeling.

“Sometimes you see it coming, and sometimes it surprises you,” Pincay Jr. said. “You think you’re doing a good job and then … ”

He paused, searching through the nearly 40 years of history.

“You remember that horse An Act?” he said.

You bet. He was a classy son of Pretense who won the 1976 Santa Anita Derby and was trained by Ron McAnally.

“Albert Yank, who was a friend, was the head of the syndicate that owned him,” Pincay Jr. went on. “After the horse lost a race, he came to me and said the syndicate voted to take me off An Act. I knew he was full of it, but that’s okay.

“So they put Marco Castaneda on for a small stakes coming up at Hollywood Park on the grass. I told my agent, ‘Get me any horse in the race. I’m going to beat that horse.’ But there was nobody, only a horse up north with no chance who might be coming. I was mad. I said, ‘Put me on that horse.’”

Let the record show that Madera Sun, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., came from far back to catch heavily favored An Act at the end of the 1976 Will Rogers Handicap to pay $12.60 and earn the winner’s share of the $55,600 pot.

“I remember this race like it was yesterday,” he said. “Coming into the stretch I had like seven lengths to catch An Act. I caught him in the last jump, and I was so happy, I felt like I won the Kentucky Derby, and I raised my whip. It was the first time any jockey did that after the wire.”
As Pincay told the story, his son watched, absorbed in the telling.

“I was born in ’75,” he deadpanned. “I remember it clearly.”

What he does remember is the thrill of watching his father compete at the highest levels of a sport that drew large crowds and constant media coverage.

“There were certain days we always went – Father’s Day at Hollywood Park, many times opening day at Santa Anita,” Laffit III said. “I liked the interaction with the adults. My mom had a cool group of friends. And I was so proud of my dad, and being able to watch him ride.”

Linda Pincay, mother of Laffit III and his sister, Lisa, was the daughter of a leading owner and a rabid advocate of her husband’s legacy. The Pincays agonized for years over his bad luck in the Kentucky Derby, which by 1984 had gone to an 0-for-10 streak of frustration. Then came Swale.

“Mom was really sick and unable to travel, so we were all home with her watching the race,” Laffit III said. “The phone started to ring before Dad crossed the wire on Swale and didn’t stop ringing for two days.”

“I felt so bad for Linda,” Pincay Jr. said. “Every year I rode the Derby she was there with me, and she was always so excited. She was sure every time it would be the year I’d finally win. The morning of the race I thought, ‘She didn’t come. Dammit, I just might win it this time.’ And sure enough.”

Pincay returned to their home near L.A.’s Griffith Park with a rose for his wife from the Derby garland. Eight months later, Linda Pincay ended her life with a gunshot suicide. Lisa was 15, Laffit III was nine.

“I didn’t know what to do about my kids,” Pincay Jr. said. “People said I should take them here, take them there, to a psychologist. The good thing was we did go to somebody to talk about it. I only knew it wasn’t going to be easy, being on my own, taking care of two kids. Before that I never could give them the time because of my work. And look at them – they turned out to be pretty good.”

Daughter Lisa has given Pincay Jr. two grandchildren, and he has a 20-year-old son, Jean-Laffitte, from his second marriage to Jeanine Pincay. They are now divorced. Laffit III is in a relationship with Sonia Desormeaux, the former wife of jockey Kent Desormeaux.

“It helps when a couple are on the same page, when you know the worlds you’re coming from,” Laffit III said.

It also helps to have a parent handy for constant inspiration and advice. After years of fasting, reducing, and purging, Pincay Jr. spent the last half of his long career a passionate practitioner of a healthy, rigidly controlled diet and fitness program.

“He’s from another planet when it comes to discipline,” Laffit III said of his father. “What I did inherit, or take after, was the need for a real routine. Diet, exercise – that regimen has really rubbed off. And like Dad always did, you have to stay on top of your own work. That’s where my dad’s advice, and picking his brain has helped me.”

For example?

“The first year I was working for NBC we did the Fall Stars weekend at Keeneland,” Laffit III said. “The Friday show was just terrible. No rhythm, no flow, mistakes, bad television. I was so disgusted with my performance I didn’t want to look at a rundown, write another show, think about television at all.”

What he did was call his father.

“He shared with me the story of when he was disqualified from the 1978 Travers with Affirmed,” Laffit III said. “How he’d never felt that bad after a horse race, and how the last thing he wanted to do was wake up the next day and ride.”

Pincay Jr. picked up the tale.

“My first thought was just to take off my mounts and stay away,” he said. “I knew I’d have to face all the questions all over again. ‘What happened? How did it happen. What were you thinking?’ But when I got back to California I thought, if I’m going to keep doing this I’ve got to face the music. Sure enough, I had to talk about it all over again when that was the last thing I wanted to do.

“I also went out and won four races,” he added. “I thought, ‘Gee, it wasn’t that tough after all. And I would have hated to miss this day.’”

So how did those other Keeneland broadcasts go?

“After getting off the phone with him I had a completely different mindset,” Laffit III said. “I opened the computer and wrote my show, and that Saturday and Sunday show I think were the two best I did for NBC that season. I don’t know I would have gotten there if we hadn’t had that conversation.”

As he continues in broadcasting, Laffit III concedes he will be facing tough career choices.

“There are some things brewing, but whatever comes up will have to work around horse racing,” he said. “I’ve grown to love covering the sport so much, even if I do have opportunities in other areas I want to always be able to do events like the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup.”

In the meantime, Laffit Pincay Jr., the debonair bachelor, seems to be having the time of his life. He published an autobiography. He represents a few product lines. He shows up often at the races and draws a doting crowd.

“If God asked me, ‘If you had to stay on the earth forever, what age would you like to be?’” he said. “I’d say, ‘Leave me the way I am right now.’ Not in my 20’s, not in my 30’s, not in my 40’s not in my 50’s. I mean, I look older, but I feel great.”

And he is very proud of his son.

“All the time I get compliments for him, and I enjoy it,” Pincay Jr. said. “Women, too, all want to meet him. I say, ‘Well, he’s not here right now. But I am.’ ”